Accessory Exercises for Squats – Introduction
Why do you need to do squat accessory exercises?
Squats are arguably one of the most valuable exercises in your strength training workouts, besides the deadlift.
They are the best way to build strength in your lower body, and you can use them to build muscle mass too.
Squats aren’t just an exercise either; they are a fundamental movement pattern that most people do many times a day.
- Sitting down and standing up? A squat!
- Were you getting in and out of your car? Another squat!
- Are you walking up a flight of stairs? A series of single-leg squats!
Squats are also an essential exercise in sports training.
If you want to run faster, jump higher, or kick more powerfully, you need to squat hard, heavy, and often.
For some exercisers, squats are just a means to an end.
For others, like powerlifters, it’s one of the three main lifts for the sport of powerlifting:
- bench press, and
- the deadlift
As such, barbell back squats, along with the bench press and the conventional or sumo deadlift is how powerlifters measure their strength.
Squats are also an excellent tool for body transformation, not to mention how effective squats are for increasing bone density and hip mobility.
Whether you squat to build muscle size or strength, or just because you want to lift more weight, you can use assistance exercises to boost your squat performance.
What Are Your Weak Points?
There are lots of different squat accessory lifts to choose from, and they are all useful.
However, that doesn’t mean you need to do them all!
To determine the best squat assistance exercises, you need to identify your weak points, also known as your sticking point.
That way, you can design an accessory work program that is right for your needs.
The most common squat weak points and their chief causes are:
1 – getting stuck at the bottom (weak glutes and hamstrings)
2 – getting stuck half-way up (weak quads)
3 – hips rising faster than the weight ( inadequate core strength)
4 – knees caving in (weak hips and glutes)
5 – left to right weight shift – (one leg stronger than the other)
The next time you train squats, video your workout or ask someone knowledgeable to observe your performance.
Analyze your performance and identify your sticking point.
Don’t be surprised if you have more than one!
Then, once you know what you need to work on, select the appropriate accessory exercises, and start working on your sticking points.
How these assistance exercises improve your squat form and ultimately your fitness
Squats are a compound exercise.
That means they involve two or more joints moving at the same time.
Squats, like deadlifts, are also a complicated exercise involving a large number of muscles.
With so much going on when you squat, just one small area of weakness will affect your performance.
You’ve probably heard the expression “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”
That statement also applies to squats.
In this case, the chain is everything between the barbell on your shoulders and your feet.
If anything in this chain is weak, you won’t squat as well as you could or should.
Squat accessory exercises strengthen the weak links that are holding you back.
Weak links can also be a source of injury.
If a muscle group fails under a heavy load, such as your lower back, you could hurt yourself.
And injuring an already weak muscle group will only make it more fragile still.
Fixing your weaknesses means you’ll be able to squat harder, with better form and heavier weights (not that you have to), and, most importantly, with less risk of injury.
Not only will your squat performance improve, so too will your general fitness, strength, and muscle size.
Adding the best squat assistance exercises to your workout will pay off, and in more ways than one.
The Top 10 Squat Accessory Exercises
Here are the ten best exercises for a better, bigger squat.
Don’t try and do all of them.
Instead, choose just a couple to address your specific weak spots.
Not sure how to program these exercises?
No problem – you will find that in the next section.
1. Paused Squats
Paused squats increase your strength coming up out of the bottom of your reps – what powerlifters call “the hole.”
They also teach you to stay tight when you squat, which will help protect your lower back.
The beauty of this exercise is it’s easy to add to your workouts as it’s just a squat with a deliberate mid-rep pause.
To do paused squats, descend as usual and then hold the bottom of the squat position for 2-5 seconds.
Do not relax!
Then, after your 2-5 second pause, drive up and out of the hole and repeat.
Start with a lighter weight than usual, as pausing mid-rep makes squatting much harder.
2. Glute Ham Raises
If you fall forward when you squat, you may have weak glutes and hamstrings.
Most people think of squats as a quad strength exercise when, in actuality, you need a strong posterior chain to squat bigger weights.
Glute ham raises require a machine called a glute-ham developer or GHD for short.
They are one of the best posterior chain strength exercises around.
To do this exercise, you lie face down on the machine with your ankles held in place.
Lower your upper body down toward the floor and then lift it again.
As you come up, bend your knees and flex your hamstrings to bring your body up higher still.
Glute ham raises are excellent for squats and deadlifts as well.
You can use your bodyweight or make it harder by using bands or holding a weight across your chest.
3. Split Squats
Most people have one leg that is stronger than the other.
While left to right strength imbalances is normal, if they are too big, it can cause problems when you squat.
For starters, your weak leg will stop you from squatting big weights. It could also lead to injuries.
Split squats are useful for identifying and fixing left to right leg muscle imbalances and are excellent for improving your balance too.
This exercise will also strengthen your outer hips, which will prevent your knees from caving in.
Step forward and out into a split stance.
Bend your legs and lower your rear knee down to within an inch of the floor.
Keep your torso upright, and make sure your front shin remains vertical.
Stand up and repeat.
Most of your weight should be on your front leg.
You can make this exercise harder by elevating your rear foot on a bench, a lower body exercise called Bulgarian split squats.
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4. Box Squats
Box squats are a lot like pause squats, except instead of pausing in mid-air, you briefly pause with your butt touching a box or bench.
They also teach you to stay tight and make you more powerful out of the hole.
Besides, they keep you honest because, if you don’t squat deep enough, you won’t touch the box.
Set up for squats as usual but have a knee-high box behind you.
Leading with your hips, push your butt back as you squat down to touch the box.
Do not relax!
Stand up fast and repeat.
You can increase posterior chain activation by using a squat safety bar for this exercise.
5. Box Jumps
Box jumps increase power and speed.
Even when you are using heavier weights, you should try and lift them as fast as possible.
If you don’t, you are much more likely to fail mid-rep.
For a bigger squat, your intent should always be to lift fast and with aggression.
Box jumps are a great lower body power exercise.
Stand facing a sturdy box or bench.
The height depends on your jumping ability, but 20-24″ is an excellent place to start.
From your normal squat stance, bend your legs, swing your arms behind you, and then jump forward and up to land on the box.
Step back down, reset your position, and repeat.
Stop your set when you notice your jump height starting to decrease.
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6. Front Squat Accessory Exercise
Front squats are one of the best accessory exercises for building quads strength.
Your quads are especially important above 90 degrees of knee flexion.
Weak quads will make locking out at the top of each rep harder.
With front squats, your torso is more upright than barbell back squats, which reduces posterior chain recruitment, leaving your quads to do more of the work.
To do front squats, rack and hold the weight across the front of your shoulders.
Point your elbows directly forward, so your upper arms are parallel to the floor.
Using a hip to shoulder-width stance, squat down as far as you can without rounding your lower back.
Stand back up and repeat.
Keep your elbows forward and your chest up throughout.
7. Goblet Squats
Goblet squats are similar to front squats but are more comfortable to learn and master.
They also make a nice change from bar squatting.
To do this exercise:
- Hold a kettlebell by the vertical handles in front of your chest and just below your chin.
- Squat down until your thighs are parallel to the floor and then stand back up.
This exercise works well with an added pause at the bottom.
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8. Kettlebell or Dumbbell Farmer Walks
You need a stable core to squat well.
If your core isn’t strong enough, your midsection may collapse under load.
If your hips rise faster than the bar when you squat and deadlift, you need to work on your core strength.
Kettlebell or dumbbell farmer walks are a great way to strengthen your core.
They are excellent for your grip too.
Just pick up and hold a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand and hold it by your side.
Keep your torso upright and brace your core.
Walk around your training area until your grip starts to fail.
Swap sides and then repeat.
You can also hold the weight overhead instead of down by your side – the waiter’s walk.
While this won’t strengthen your grip, it’s still good for your core and will also increase shoulder stability.
Like split squats, lunges work one leg at a time, which is useful for fixing left-to-right strength imbalances.
They are also helpful for strengthening your outer hips, so your knees are less likely to cave in during squats.
Lunges will help keep your hips mobile, which will help you squat more in-depth and with fewer injuries.
To perform lunges, stand with your feet together and dumbbells in your hands or a barbell on your shoulders.
Take a big step forward, bend your legs, and lower your rear knee down to within an inch of the floor.
Push off your front leg to return to the starting position and then repeat on the opposite side.
Continue alternating legs for the duration of your set.
10. Hip Thrusts
A big squat needs strong glutes, and this is the exercise to build them.
It’s also easy on your lower back, so it provides a nice break from heavy squats.
Lie on your back with your legs bent and feet on the floor.
Hold a weight across your hips for extra resistance if required.
Drive your feet into the floor and lift your hips until they form a straight line with your knees and shoulders.
Lower your butt back to the floor and repeat.
How to Program
How do you program these squat accessories into your training?
There are several ways you can use these squat variations and accessory movements to improve your squat performance.
There is no single right way – you’ll have to experiment to find the best solution for you.
Your options include:
1 – Do your chosen exercise(s) after your main squat workout
Advantages: you are already warmed up
Disadvantages: you might be too tired to do justice to the exercises you have selected
2 – Do your chosen assistance exercise(s) before your main squat workout
Advantages: they will fire up your weak links and may increase squat performance.
Many squat accessory exercises are an excellent way to warm-up for regular squats
Disadvantages: if you overdo it, you may be too tired to squat as heavy as you want.
3 – Do your chosen exercise(s) as part of a separate workout
Advantages: you’ll have plenty of energy and time to do justice to the exercises you have selected
Disadvantages: you’ll have to find time to do an extra workout
Regarding sets and your rep range, you will benefit the most from these squat assistance exercises by using moderate to heavy weight and between 5-12 reps.
After all, you want to build muscle size and strength to boost squat performance.
Very high reps, i.e., 15-20, are great for building endurance, but that’s not what you need for a bigger, better squat.
Squat Accessory Exercises – Final Thoughts
If you squat, and you probably should, it makes sense to try and get the best from this incredible free-weight exercise.
Including any of these ten squat assistance exercises will help.
They’ll eliminate the weak links that may be holding you back, and that means you’ll get even better results from your squat workouts.
Squats ARE a phenomenal exercise, but you need more than one squat variation and accessory exercise to build the lower body of your dreams!
Now that you have the squat accessory exercises, what is a good squat workout?
Here is one excellent beginner squat workout routine for you to use.
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